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The Partnership: Hard Sell in the Drug War

by CYNTHIA COTTS, The Nation Magazine

Condoning the legal stuff?

"This is your brain on drugs," goes the fried egg ad. "Any questions?" -After seeing the ad some teenagers have stopped taking drugs-and some 4 year olds have stopped eating eggs. "Fried Egg" is one of hundreds of ads released under the imprimatur of the Partnership for a Drug-Free America.

Launched in 1986 in New York City, this nonprofit group uses advertising to reduce the demand for illegal drugs. It's a flashy concept, but, as "Fried Egg" demonstrates, propaganda can breed misconceptions. The Partnership means well, but it sends a self-serving message. The ads themselves exaggerate and distort, relying on scare tactics to get people's attention. Ad strategies are based on market research rather than public health policy. Even worse, the Partnership has accepted $5.4 million in contributions from legal drug manufacturers, while producing ads that overlook the dangers of tobacco,- alcohol and pills. This "drug-free" crusade is actually a silent partner to the drug industry, condoning the use of "good" drugs by targeting only the "bad" ones.

Of course, the pharmaceutical and advertising industries have long been intertwined. James Burke, who resigned as chairman and C.E.O. of Johnson & Johnson in 1989 to become chairman of the Partnership, is no stranger to marketing. In the mid-1980s, he engineered a classic campaign to restore public confidence in Tylenol after the cyanide scare.

A few years later, Johnson & Johnson sued Bristol-Myers Squibb for claiming in its advertising that Aspirin-Free Excedrin is a better pain reliever than Extra-Strength Tylenol. At the Partnership, Burke has implemented a concept borrowed from the pharmaceutical industry: If ads can sell drugs, they can unsell them, too.

More than 100 agencies have made Partnership ads pro bono, and the media kick in ad space and air time for free. The incentive? Creative directors get to show off, giving their ads titles like "Candy Store" and "Tricks of the Trade" and submitting them for industry awards. The actors involved get exposure, and the media outlets can pat themselves on the back for contributing to a good cause.

Typically, Partnership ads are melodramatic. They trade on scare tactics (the school-bus driver snorts coke) and stereo-types (black boys sell crack in the schoolyard). With their hard line on marijuana, Partnership ads revive an old message: One puff, and you're hooked. Dr. Gil Botven, who studies drug abuse prevention programs at Cornell Medical College, thinks "what the Partnership is doing is great." But, he adds, "scare tactics have never been demonstrated to be effective."

Partnership spokeswoman Theresa Grant doesn't like the term scare tactics. "We feel it's appropriate to arouse people's attention," she says. A recent print ad shows a preteen in a denim jacket under the headline, "What she's going through isn't a phase. It's an ounce a week." The ad copy alerts parents to the dangers of pot smoking, and in doing so, it exaggerates slightly-not many 10-year-olds could afford an ounce of marijuana a week, let alone smoke it and stay on their feet.

When questioned about the exaggeration, Grant said the ad had just come under review. A few weeks later, the "Not Just a Phase" girl was back, taking up a full page in The New York Times.

Fact checking is a sensitive issue for the Partnership. They've caught so much flak over the years for inaccuracies that the review process has been overhauled; now, the factual content of all ads is scrutinized before they're produced. The first screamer was a 1987 TV ad depicting the brain wave of a l4 year-old smoking pot. It was actually the brain wave of a coma patient. In 1990 Scientific American uncovered some cooked figures in a cocaine ad. Those early mistakes were really "born of naivete," says Grant. "Nobody intentionally distorted facts. In those days, they really thought they had the kind of substantiation they needed."

A 19% print-ad reels off marijuana slang terms and concludes, "No matter what you call it, don't call it harmless!" The ad cites potential damage to the lungs and reproductive system. But calls to the National Cancer Institute and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (N.I.D.A.) didn't turn up any casualties, just a lot of inconclusive studies.

One study did find "reduced gas exchange capacity" in the lungs of fifteen women who were chronic pot smokers. As for reproductive risks, scientists have injected a lot of pregnant monkeys with THC, the key psychoactive chemical in marijuana, but they've yet to come up with hard evidence. In fact, the health issue is "nebulous," Grant concedes, so the Partnership is switching its tack on marijuana. Future ads won't tell you it's dangerous, just that it's uncool.

Like its mentors in the pharmaceutical industry, the Partnership has learned to backpedal. In the fall of 1990 the campaign sent ads to Alaskans for a Drug-Free Youth, a parent group that was campaigning to put recriminalization of marijuana on the ballot. Recriminalization was passed that November, and the Partnership crowed about the victory in its Winter 1991 newsletter.

When asked about the Partnership's effort, Grant denies a political motive. "It wasn't any different than if we provided messages to a community group in Iowa," she says. "I must be remiss, because I never looked at it from the perspective of assisting in a political campaign."

To maintain its good reputation, the Partnership has to offer hard proof of advertising's impact on drug abuse. So, even though experts have concluded that media campaigns do not in themselves change behavior, Burke goes around trumpeting the power of the media to save children from drugs. Burke is echoed by Mathea Falco, a former Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics Matters, who is now writing a book on drug prevention programs. The Partnership's greatest achievement, says Falco, is to convey the message that using drugs is silly. They're making it socially unacceptable, and that's the best way to bring about social change"

No one can prove that the ads are responsible for declining drug use or indeed that all drug use is down. The latest government surveys show a rise in the use of cocaine and heroin by urban youth, and in the use of LSD by college students nationwide.

When he needs proof Burke can quote the Partnership Attitude Tracking Survey (PATS), conducted annually at the Partnership's behest by the Gordon S. Black Corporation. The PATS research suggests a correlation between teens who have seen the anti-drug ads, teens who disapprove of drug use and teens who say no to drugs. But when Burke cites PATS, he doesn't mention that Gordon Black is a market research firm, or that PATS is based on "mall intercepts." That is, participants fill out questionnaires anonymously at shopping malls in sample locations. Confidentiality is thus guaranteed, but accuracy is not.

The Partnership ignores cigarettes, alcohol and pills.
At the University of Michigan, Dr. Lloyd Johnston, a research scientist, conducts an annual survey of high school students for N.I.D.A. According to Johnston, the mall intercepts are an inexpensive method of measuring trends, but they lack the sampling precision of a household survey. Nonetheless, Johnston's surveys do bolster the PATS conclusions.

Most teens remember the anti-drug ads and report being influenced by them. "There's no guarantee advertising did it per se" says Johnston, "but it's clear things have moved in the right direction. "The PATS five-year summary reports that illegal drug use by students is dropping, but falls to mention that tobacco and alcohol are still teenagers' drugs of choice. Johnston's latest statistics show that 40 percent of tenth graders report drinking within the past month and getting very drunk within the past year. "The other thing that comes out of our surveys," says Johnston, "is that smoking has not dropped among young people for almost a decade." Nineteen percent of high school seniors are dally tobacco smokers, and hundreds of thousands of them, Johnston sadly predicts, will die of lung cancer one day.

The Partnership has traditionally attacked marijuana, cocaine and crack, drugs deemed widely available to schoolchildren. But if the Partnership's mission is to stop kids from experimenting in the first place, why not go after cigarettes and beer? The answer is obvious. According to Falco, "It would be suicidal if the Partnership took on the alcohol and tobacco industries. The Partnership is living off free advertising product and space, and the media and ad agencies live off alcohol and tobacco advertising." Theresa Grant acknowledges that the decision to focus on illegal drugs was "pragmatic." based on the desire to "get the airtime and space and not alienate the people who are making this possible." The Partnership's condoning of legal drugs doesn't bother Falco. "The message may not be complete"' she chirps, "but it's better than nothing!" Many public health researchers, however, are concerned about a new generation of teens who smoke' drink and pop pills. Experts believe that children begin using drugs in the order of availability, and they're more likely to try marijuana if they've already tried alcohol and cigarettes. "The natural thing in a prevention campaign," says Dr. Botven, "would be to focus on the three gateway substances: alcohol, tobacco and marijuana. The Partnership starts with marijuana, and my concern is they're skipping the most important ones in terms of fatality." Johnston believes the Partnership has the ability to target legal drug abuse, and says he "would be delighted if they would." When asked if he thinks that could happen, he pauses. "A betting man would say no."

In the Partnership's early days, its primary supporter was the American Association of Advertising Agencies. That group knew better than to alienate the legal drug industry. But the mandate must have been reinforced in 1989, the year Burke came from Johnson & Johnson, bringing with him a $3 million grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a prominent health care philanthropy. The foundation described its unusually handsome grant to the Partnership as "pivotal in leveraging ... support from other private foundations."

On cue, the other foundations rolled over. In 1989 and 1990, the ten largest foundation grants for alcohol and drug abuse totaled $12.4 million. The Partnership took $4.7 million from that pool, or 38 percent. Many an individual donor gave its largest anti-drug grant to the Partnership. In other words, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation accelerated a trend: the channeling of foundation money into public awareness, which is considered a less effective form of drug-abuse prevention than school- and community-based programs.

The Partnership's funders are usually kept secret, says Grant, to protect them from other grant seekers and from the legalization lobby. But the Partnership's 1991 tax return reveals another motive for secrecy: conspicuous support from the legal drug industry. From 1988 to 1991, pharmaceutical companies and their beneficiaries contributed as follows:

  • the J. Seward Johnson, Sr, Charitable Trusts ($1,100,000)
  • Du Pont ($150,000)
  • the Procter & Gamble Fund ($120,000)
  • the Bristol- Myers Squibb Foundation ($110,000)
  • Johnson & Johnson ($110,000)
  • Smith Kline Beecham ($100,000)
  • the Merck Foundation ($75,000)
  • and Hoffman-La Roche ($30,000)
  • Pharmaceuticals and their beneficiaries alone donated 54 percent of the $5.8 million the Partnership took from its top twenty-five contributors from 1988 to 1991. That 54 percent is conservative. It doesn't include donations under $90,000, and it doesn't include donations from the tobacco and alcohol kings: The Partnership has taken $150,000 each from Philip Morris, Anheuser-Busch and RJR Reynolds, plus $100,000 from American Brands (Jim Beam. Lucky Strike).

    Coincidence? Hardly. The war on drugs is a war on illegal drugs, and the partnership's benefactors have a huge stake in keeping it that way. They know that when schoolchildren learn that marijuana and crack are evil, they're also learning that alcohol, tobacco and pills are as American as apple pie.